Meg Whitman's Political Reinvention

The former eBay chief was named chief of HP. We chatted with her in 2010 (when she was campaigning for governor of California) and found out who "the real Meg Whitman" is.

By Amy Wallace
meg whitman image
Meg Whitman, poised to reinvent
Photograph: Photo By Robert Maxwell

She certainly figured out eBay. At the height of her power there, Whitman was an Oprah-like figure, greeted with raucous applause and chants of “Meg! Meg! Meg!” at the company’s 2003 eBay Live, in Orlando, Florida, a community event for the site’s buyers and sellers; she happily autographed T-shirts and trading cards that day for the 10,000 eBay enthusiasts who’d flocked to see her. Wall Street was no less adoring: In 2000, the stock hit $127.50 a share (it now trades around $23). Fortune twice named her (in 2004 and 2005) the most powerful woman in American business, and Forbes put her on its 2007 list of Best Bosses for delivering “superior returns to shareholders while not gorging on outrageous pay packages.” (Her salary averaged $1.7 million a year from 2001 to 2007, not counting her lucrative stock options.) When she arrived at eBay in 1998, the company had 30 employees, revenues of $4.7 million and a reputation as a place to buy and sell Beanie Babies. During Whitman’s 10-year tenure, the company exploded, becoming a global marketplace with more than 15,000 employees and revenues of $7.7 billion.

How much credit goes to Whitman? Back then there was a joke around the company that the business model was so strong, “a monkey could drive this train,” and one board member reportedly commented that the CEO “found a parade and ran in front of it.” But Whitman can take credit for several of the company’s key successes. She was known as a hands-on, very involved manager who dressed like her employees (“I wore khakis and button-down shirts every day,” she says. “I mean, it was the greatest thing ever”), who once camped out in the office for two weeks when the site crashed. She also saw to it that eBay reflected certain values (she banned the sale of guns, alcohol and Nazi memorabilia, among other things). She expanded the company aggressively overseas, establishing a strong foothold in Germany, Malaysia, the Philippines, India, South Korea and the Netherlands. In 2002, she masterminded the purchase of PayPal for $1.5 billion.

But for all the hagiography that surrounds Whitman (and most other billionaire CEOs), she also had her failures—some of them expensive. She was too late trying to establish an eBay foothold in Japan, eventually pulling out of the country altogether. Her purchase of Skype in 2005 for an estimated $2.6 billion is now seen as a disaster; the company took a $1.4 billion write-down on the purchase. And eBay has been involved in a number of lawsuits concerning the sale of counterfeit goods on the site (some they’ve won; some they’ve paid fines). In fact, while Whitman’s first seven years are an acknowledged triumph, once the company started to cool, the remaining three years of her stewardship are generally agreed to have been less impressive. Of course to voters, specific successes and setbacks may matter less than Whitman’s professional résumé. She steered a massive company for a decade, and that’s what she’s campaigning on when she says, “There are tremendous efficiencies that can be had by running the government a little bit more like a business.”

After interviewing Whitman at her headquarters, I head back to San Francisco for her umpteenth campaign stop since she formed her exploratory committee in February 2009. At this event, on the top floor of the city’s second tallest building, she is receiving an award from the California Women’s Leadership Association. She has changed outfits since the afternoon and looks great in a gold-checked Nehru jacket, slacks and pearls. Through the year I have watched her warm to public speaking, particularly in smaller venues like this one, where she can see people’s faces. “When I first considered running,” she tells the crowd, “the question I had to ask myself was, is California actually governable?” I’ve heard her use the line before, and it works again here; 100 or so well-dressed men and women all stop chewing cheese cubes long enough to laugh with her. “I have concluded that California is governable,” she continues, her tone supremely self-confident. “But it will take a very different approach.”

First Published January 20, 2010

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